On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!

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